भ्रष्टाचार को पकड़ना मुश्किल ही नहीं नामुमकिन है: The unending search for catching corruption

“There is one thing tougher than catching ‘Don’. Call it Mission Impossible if you will, though it is tougher than that. Can you tell me what it is?” asked my South Indian friend Swami as we sipped an evening coffee.

I gave it some thought for a while and ventured a guess. “Beating Australia in Australia.”

“No, we have done it a few years back”, Swami said, rejecting my answer. “Any other guesses?”

Then it was my broker friend Jigneshbhai’s turn. “Beating the market index?”

“Naah, sometimes some people do end up beating the index. It is मुश्किल, but not नामुमकिन,” said Swami, like a quiz master, surprisingly using Hindi, possibly giving us clues.

When there were no more guesses, he finally announced in chaste Hindi, “Well, you may achieve Mission Impossible and catch Don, but भ्रष्टाचार को पकड़ना मुश्किल ही नहीं नामुमकिन है!”

He continued telling us that he had just finished watching three thrilling, adventure movies in the course of the week. He started with watching Tom Cruise jumping off buildings in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, and was impressed with the thrills. On the next day, on the insistence of his wife, despite the Ra.One experience, he went and watched Don 2: The Chase Continues. He said he was impressed with the thrills, pace and slickness of the movie.

But the most thrilling of all was the movie he watched on TV spread from Tuesday through Thursday, in which he followed a bunch of talented artistes chase and nail down a known evil named ‘भ्रष्टाचार’. “It seemed a thrilling, almost non-scripted ride. It was never clear what will happen next”, remarked Swami.

“In fact, there was amazing suspense on who the heroes were, who the villains were, and viewers were left wondering whether they kept changing roles”, remarked my broker friend, Jigneshbhai who had partly watched some of the proceedings.

“Yeah – new characters kept coming in from time to time. The stage kept moving, new rules and equations between various characters kept on emerging. In fact, at one point, they even left the viewer guessing on whether the story was actually about nailing down this भ्रष्टाचार guy, or if the plot had changed to something else”, Swami remarked, confused as always.

“Hey, you must be joking about the Lokpal Bill”, I said.

“Yes, of course. But were the thrills in it anything less than MI-4 or Don-2?”, mocked Jigneshbhai. On second thoughts, he continued “Well – those movies at least have a happy ending. This one does not seem like it is going to end soon.”

“But they were going to pass the bill soon, I had thought. Perhaps this session or the next”, I said, trying to be a bit logical and patient. One better be rational and take a well-considered view, specially when it comes to issues of national importance.

But then Swami said, “Well, it is a thriller – so you never know what will happen. They may pass it, but most likely not. In any case, passing the bill is one thing. But catching भ्रष्टाचार is another. That guy will still get away. Don does not catch himself, right?”

He continued, “That’s why I said, Tom Cruise may achieve Mission Impossible. Don may get caught eventually. India may beat Australia in Australia. Someone might even beat the market index consistently. Those things are easy. But it has been 40 plus years now – in our unending search for catching corruption. So भ्रष्टाचार को पकड़ना मुश्किल ही नहीं नामुमकिन है.”

Breaking News: Get down on your knees and pray during market falls!

Breaking News: Get down on your knees and pray!

It is this advice from a well known investment expert that led to a huge crowd of men and women and couples in their twenties and thirties sitting down in prayer in front of the Bombay Stock Exchange on Dalal Street in South Mumbai today.

It was a dream come true for investors when the Nifty closed below 4700 for the first time since Oct 2009. Thankfully, RBI’s credit policy did not pull the markets up, therefore providing prices that were not available for the past 25 months for investors to buy. Experts suggested that with the global turmoil continuing and a solution to India’s domestic problems not in sight, they were optimistic that investors will continue to enjoy wonderful prices to buy stocks of great businesses for some more time.

“I think given the global scenario, the party will continue for some more time”, a reliable source was heard saying. An unexpected recovery in Europe and the US may spoil the buying party, so investors should brace against that. But the likelihood of that happening seems low, so it is an optimistic scenario for investors who have not seen such prices for a while. “I have been waiting for this since the last one year”, an experienced investor interviewed by this channel said. “Prices may continue to get better over the next few months if global turmoil, the domestic situation and our government cooperates. So I am keeping my fingers crossed.”

Investors who missed the discount sale three years back were being advised to look at what’s on offer and take advantage of these prices. A young man, who missed the last mega sale in Dec 2008, and who had joined the mass prayers with his newly wed wife, said, “Well, I guess those 2008 kind of mega sale offers don’t come often. But then, this 2011 one is not that bad. So I am praying that the good going lasts.”

Yes, in fact, prayer! Experts had advised investors that they start with a prayer. A prayer that in these unpredictable times for the markets and the world economy, stock prices remain or get lower than where they are. Therefore, leading to the unprecedented flash mob prayer in front of the Bombay Stock Exchange. “If you’re planning to work for another 20 years, then pray for a proper market crash”, a reliable source was heard saying. In fact, a well-known expert went to the extent of saying, “if you are in your twenties or thirties with a steady income saving for retirement, get down on your knees and pray for a fall! And pray that it lasts!”

Your Call is Important to Us: The Tragicomedy of Customer Service

In the old MTNL days, customer service used to be quite honest. It may not have been good, but you cannot fault them for honesty. So when you called them for some request, mostly you were welcomed with something like “कृपया प्रतीक्षा करें, आप कतार में हैं” which made no bones about the fact that you have to wait and we will attend to you when we reach you perhaps after all else is done. Even the English version said, “Please wait. You are in queue” or something like that. So you basically called a number and waited for something to happen.

Now the onus has shifted. You call a number, and try to make things happen! When English, Management Principles and Technology get together, it can create good things as well as bad things. So today, customer service may be better, but it is not honest. The approach is you are important to us and we will attend to you when you are able to reach us, and when it suits us well. * Conditions apply.

So my South Indian friend Swami who grew up in Matunga in Mumbai during the MTNL era complains that he has to pay a lot of attention nowadays when he calls his bank’s, or for that matter, anyone’s customer service number.

“Every time I call them, it starts with – ‘Please listen carefully as our menu options have recently changed’. For the past few months, I have been searching for the change, but haven’t found it”, he complained. Well, I was not sure what exactly he was complaining about, the change or not being able to find it. But be that as it may.

“That’s just to wake you up, Swami. They are telling you please don’t blame us later if you stand in the wrong queue”, remarked my broker friend Jigneshbhai, tongue in cheek over our customary weekend coffee.

“Yes I know. That’s when I realized that the thing that has changed is that they removed the ‘Press 0 to talk to our service representative’ link from their menu options”, Swami said pleased at his discovery.

“So they removed the counter which had people earlier, so you cannot form a queue there”, Jigneshbhai continued with his expert comments.

Not one to give up, Swami added, “But I have mastered all their tricks now. A few times I tried all options in their menu to get to an agent. I pressed 0 like I used to earlier. But the system said ‘I haven’t understood your inputs’ couple of times and disconnected me saying ‘please call back later’.” His initial spirit of discovery changed to a mood of disappointment as he was saying that.

“They know that stubborn callers like you will fight for that counter which had people earlier, so they want to make sure that the queue does not start, or at the very least it is tough to find that counter!”, reiterated Jigneshbhai.

“Exactly. But finally, I got it. If you want to speak to someone, you do nothing! You wait at the main menu itself – and it will say ‘Transferring your call to a customer service representative. This call may be monitored for quality and monitoring purposes.'” He informed us almost with a triumphant smile on his face.

“Great”, I said, thanking Swami, thinking this was the end of it.

But Jigneshbhai poked him further. “That quality and monitoring stuff was to discourage you, and put a doubt in your mind, so that you reconsider standing the queue, even though you have reached it. But you are tenacious. So finally you got what you wanted?”

Swami’s victorious face suddenly turned to anger. “Arre Baba, I had just got into the queue now. Now they said, “Your waiting time is expected to be 13 minutes. Please hold. Your call is important to us.”

“Of course, you have proven your tenacity and finally got into a queue. Well – they are saying if you can’t serve yourself and insist so much on being served, we will serve you, but wait for some time till we have tea. So this is perhaps the final hindrance.” said Jigneshbhai adding insult to injury.

But Swami had internalized his customer service experience beyond our expectations. “I wish it was the final hurdle. Someone came up after some time, and after some hello, how may I help you, asked me my address, date of birth and mother’s maiden name for security reasons. Now I remembered the first two but could not remember the third. So she told me that she will need to direct me to the system again where I can enter my account details.” As he said this, I could see the sense of dejection making its appearances on his face. “And on top of it she asked, ‘Can I put you on hold while I transfer you to the system?’ As if I had a choice.”

“Hmm. I think this is like reaching the counter in the olden times and the agent asking you for a set of documents she needs which you did not know”, remarked Jigneshbhai.

“Yeah – so I entered my account details and then the system asked me for some verification. And after just one “Your call is important to us” she came back, and she said, ‘Sir, thank you for your verification. While I pull up your account details, may I place your call on hold?’ Well if you say so, I said. Then I started listening to some promotion of their products to be added to my account for a good 5 minutes”, Swami’s sorry tale kept getting sorrier.

“Hmm..you see you did the right thing in having all your documents ready when you reached the counter this time”, Jigneshbhai remarked with his first positive comment, poking Swami who was no longer finding it funny.

“Ok, then what happened?” I asked, trying to give Swami some empathy.

“Finally, she asked me what I wanted. I said I wanted to downgrade my account plan and change the address.”

Continuing, Swami said in a flabbergasted tone, “I don’t know what happened after that, but for 10 minutes I spoke to three people from three different departments every time the system kept transferring the call and saying “Your call is important to us”. They kept telling me how my current account plan was the best and how a downgrade would be disastrous given my profile. Eventually they gave me some discount in my account, and I agreed not to change anything!”, reported Swami with an emotion that had a mix of victory and defeat.

“And what about the address change?” asked Jigneshbhai, almost spurring Swami into anger.

“Nothing, she took down my request, and gave me a request number. And told me that it would be effective after I submit my address proof at any of their branches.”, said Swami with a dejected look.

“So that was it?” I asked, trying to close it. Any further and Swami would have had a nervous breakdown.

He was close to it when he finally said, “Yeah. As I disconnected, a voice said, ‘Thank you for your call. It would be our pleasure to serve you again. Please provide your feedback by sending an SMS to 56076.”

As we left, Jigneshbhai remarked, “Sometimes I wonder if ‘कृपया प्रतीक्षा करें, आप कतार में हैं’ was better than ‘Your call is important to us’! If not for service, at least for mental health!”

Standard Operating Procedure: An 18-Step Success Guide for Politicians

Standard Operating Procedures used in service industries like technology and healthcare bring in standardization, process orientation and overall efficiency, and are increasingly bringing the same benefits to politics.
  1. Politician comes to position of power and sets in place a proper system to implement corrupt practices. Initially he makes sure everyone in the chain is satisfied and gets his due, so the system runs smoothly.
  2. After a while, he gets a bit insecure and realizes that he has limited time to ensure his life time needs are met. So he gets a bit greedy, and in the process misses to give someone their due.
  3. If the politician is highly experienced, go back to Step 1 and keep continuing the iterations. He is then on his way to political superstardom. Else Go to Step 4.
  4. Somehow word gets out, and a press article appears on how the politician is corrupt and has used his position of power for personal gains.
  5. Politician reacts and says that he is being victimized by the opposition. Politician and his party continue to say that character assassination is politically motivated
  6. Opposition says that they need an independent inquiry into the issue.
  7. In case he is truly a big fish or on the way to become one, go back to Step 5. The arguments continue and eventually die out. Most ambitious politicians should aspire to stay in this loop for most of their lives. In majority of the cases, there is an agreement between the party in power and the opposition and the issue is settled. Only if things get serious or out of hand, Go to Step 8.
  8. Forced by something which could be anything from not getting a share of the corruption money to taking advantage of the public mood, an inquiry has to be set up in excruciating circumstances – headed, in most cases, by a former, retired judge.
  9. The opposition rejects the formation of the inquiry commission saying that the character of the person who heads it as well as the members is not spotless, and hence this is an eyewash.
  10. Then after some time which could be a few months to many years, the inquiry gets done and a report is submitted, which finds some elements of wrong doing but no conclusive evidence. At this point, things generally close on the topic, or there is a demand for another investigation, in which case go back to Step 8 and repeat. Only if there is some serious suspicion, go to Step 11.
  11. The original politician’s party, senses that it is time to distance themselves from the politician – and so says that the legal process will take its due course and they believe that our judicial system will mete out punishment to the offenders in case of any wrong doing.
  12. As part of this process, someone from the opposition co-incidentally gets caught in an act of corruption. The opposition claims this is political vendetta. Go to step 11 and repeat for a few months and then go to step 13.
  13. Finally the court hearing the inquiry commission asks them why they did such a shoddy job, and why a case was not registered, and then, due to this kind of embarrassment at the hands of the judiciary, some proof is quickly gathered, and perhaps a case is registered.
  14. Hearings go on from lower court to upper court, Go back to step 13 for a few months, and then something happens and it looks like the politician may be cornered. Now go to step 15.
  15. A bail application is then made by the politician’s lawyers, and it is mostly rejected.
  16. The politician then falls ill and seeks bail on medical grounds – which is granted. Go back to step 13 through 16 and the process repeats. Finally in the rarest of the rare cases, in case he truly has no political utility for anyone, he has to resign.
  17. If it is really bad with seriously bad media coverage, he may lose the election next time. If it is not that bad, and some damage control has been done, he may win or someone else from his party will win in his place.
  18. A new politician comes to a position of power. Go to step 1 and repeat.

A Gambler’s Instinct: The knack for taking calculated risks and knowing when to take them

“One thing that is different in our players of today and our players of yesterday is that earlier our players used to play mostly not to lose, and today they very often play to win”, said my broker friend Jigneshbhai over our Sunday evening coffee. Continuing, he remarked, “The difference may seem minor but is vast. In the first approach, the best result you will get in the game is a prevention of loss and then you hope for a win. While in the second approach, the worst approach you may get is a loss, but if you calculate your risks, you may also get a big win.”

“Like what happened last week, when Dhoni and Raina suddenly decided in the 35th over that they were not happy with 225 as that may, at best, prevent a loss, but wanted 300 to play for a win.”

“But there was risk in it. What if they had lost their wicket?” interjected Swami.

He was right. There was a risk of that happening, and in that case even the result of prevention of loss would have been difficult to guarantee. “Yes, that’s right. Playing for a win always has more risk than playing not to lose. And it is not always sensible at all times to play only for a win. There will be stages when it is best to play not to lose. But the reason I think Dhoni is a great captain is because he has a wonderful gambler’s instinct that helps him decide when to play not to lose and when to play for a win. And acts accordingly.”

Just as we were leaving, he added, “You know, Swami. In the long-term game of investments in the capital markets, playing not to lose can, sometimes, also mean you are playing to win. It seems to me that the current period is one of those times when you can both play not to lose as well as play to win.”

And then in the background I heard this song by the famous country music singer Kenny Rogers that he started humming as we left.

“Now every gambler knows the secret to survivin’
Is knowin’ what to throw away
And knowin’ what to keep
‘Cause every hand’s a winner
And every hand’s a loser
And the best that you can hope for
Is to die in your sleep”

“So when he finished speakin’
He turned back for the window
Crushed out his cigarette
And faded off to sleep then somewhere in the darkness
The gambler he broke even,
but in his final words
I found an ace that I could keep”

“You’ve got to know when to hold ’em
Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away
know when to run
You never count your money
When you’re sittin’ at the table
There’ll be time enough for countin’
When the dealin’s done”

A Cryptic Cocktail: Mixing Cricket Commentary with Stock Markets and Investing

The wealthy man living in the sprawling bungalow near my house with his BMW and Mercedes speaks very sparingly. And whenever he speaks, it is quite cryptic. So one has to really concentrate when he is speaking, and think hard after he is done. So the other day when my South Indian friend Swami and I were just walking across from my house to get a coffee, we saw the wealthy man taking a walk with his dog. He knows Swami, who by now has had a number of ‘question-mark’ conversations with him in the past. So he wished me good evening, and this time before Swami could ask him anything, he just told him with a wry smile, “The situation is tense but under control.”

I first heard this term being used by the Mumbai police during the Mumbai riots in the early 1990’s. It was so conveniently cryptic and became so popular that the Home Ministry started using it. Now I think it has become the de-facto phrase used by government officials, specially Home Ministry ones, to describe, in an imprecise way, what is happening whenever there are riots, earthquakes, floods, strikes, accidents or anything remotely like those.

So I was a bit surprised when the wealthy man used it, not quite clear what he was referring to. So I took the liberty of asking him if he had some time for a quick coffee. The wealthy man does not easily say yes, but this time, he surprisingly did – so in a few minutes, we found ourselves chatting with him over a coffee.

After an awkward silence for a few minutes, my South Indian friend Swami had to ask something. He tends to lose his patience with Jigneshbhai, but with the wealthy man living in the sprawling bungalow, you cannot do that. So in polite language, he asked him for advice on the current state of the markets.

The wealthy man replied, “This match is very much in the balance now”. And added in his baritone voice, “It is not going to be easy for the batsman to get bat on to ball on this pitch.” Further, neglecting our confused looks, he continued, “It will provide assistance to the bowlers, but if the batsmen apply themselves, one can play a long innings.” I knew he spoke sparingly, and was cryptic most of the time, but this seemed out of context. So we thought he probably misunderstood the question – perhaps he heard matches instead of markets.

So Swami tried to explain – “Yes sir, but I was referring to the markets, not to the Champions league matches. I have already lost so much, would be great if you could throw some light on what to do next.”

This time, we thought we will hear some gems of wisdom. But the wealthy man continued. “Well, given the conditions, it should be good toss to lose”. This was getting a bit out of hand. Even I was starting to wonder what was happening here. But Swami was now getting a bit aggressive. He clarified, “Sir, I am losing money everyday in these volatile markets. You have been playing the markets for so many years. Should I sell and get out now?” Again with eager eyes, we were looking for some pearls of wisdom this time. And the wealthy man said, “We had a cracker of a game today, but at the end of it all, one will have to say that the team that kept its nerve better prevailed”.

This was getting too much to handle now, even for me. We were starting to fear if the wealthy man had lost it – maybe growing age and the stress of his wealth getting eroded at this stage in life was getting to him. Or perhaps he was watching too much of TV, and business and sports channels were getting mixed up in his head. Swami gave me a strong stare, almost warning me that he is going to stop having coffee with me. As if handling my broker friend Jigneshbhai was not enough, now he had this wealthy man from the sprawling bungalow to make sense out of.

So we started wrapping up with our coffee, and hoped that this was it. It did not seem to make sense to press the point now. Not wanting to take the discussion further, I asked for the bill, and while waiting for it, asked the wealthy man which team he was supporting in the Champions League. I casually added, “The Royal Challengers seem to be up to it this time, but you never know with them. The Mumbai Indians could spring up a surprise.”

I thought this conversation was now making sense. We were both talking about the same topic. At least we will leave on a sober note. No more mixing cryptic cocktails of cricket and markets, I thought. So as we left, we were stumped when the wealthy man threw another cryptic one. “Indeed, in these conditions, I am in support of investing in wonderful companies with good long term potential. For the true fan, this pitch is just what the doctor ordered.”

The “In-between” Generation of Indians: Caught in Two Worlds or the Best of Both?

One of the things that I learnt from the recent anti-corruption movement is that I think there is a generation of Indians who are the ‘in-between’ generation. People from the older generation were generally initially quite cynical, the ones from the newer generation were generally quite positive from the start, and a large part of the in-between generation were quite literally ‘in-between’. I may be wrong here, but this is just a point of view.

Generally, people talk of the Indian economy in two parts – the pre-1991 license and government raj and the post 1991 liberalization era. By way of distinct ways of thinking, I think there are three Indian generations. The pre 1991 generation that was born, and more or less done with a major part of their working life by the 1980’s and 1990’s.  Then there is a post 1991 generation, those who were born in the 80’s and 90’s, and who generally cannot quite imagine how life was before the 1990’s. And then there is the ‘in-between’ generation – people born in the late 60’s and 70’s, who grew up in the ‘government era’ and even, perhaps, started working in that era, but who were positioned to be the early beneficiaries of the economic changes happening right under their nose.

Not quite from the old era, not quite fully from the new era. Not quite held back, not quite breaking free, but caught ‘in-between’.

rockandahardplaceLike many of them never went outside India till they finished their education, and still a lot of them have seen the world. So a lot of them are caught between whether they like to stay in India and abroad.

Like many of them have seen job security in the early part of their careers, and then with increasing opportunities, have taken advantage of them, but have also seen the pressure that comes with it, and the demise of guaranteed employment. So a lot of them are stuck between whether it is a ‘me first’ or the ’employer first’.

Like the women in this generation are neither ambitious enough to clearly go for their career over family; nor are they willing to compromise on either one. So they are caught between ‘family first’ or ‘career first’.

Like the men in this generation want to have a life with their wife and kids, but they also think taking care of their parents is their responsibility. So the men are caught between their own family or their parents.

They want the good things that life offers, but have also seen what life used to be and could have been. So they are caught between chasing what is possible and being happy with what they have.

Look at it one way, this generation has been caught between a rock and a hard place. Look at it another way, this generation has got the best of both worlds.

May be there is some sense in this, may be this is fully my imagination. Perhaps the reality is somewhere ‘in between’.

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